Readersforum's Blog

September 30, 2011

Don’t write off physical too early, trade warned

    30.09.11 | Graeme Neill

Publishers should not be too quick to write off physical products and should encourage competition between a number of digital players to avoid the mistakes the record industry made, the director general of the Entertainment Retailers Association has said.

Kim Bayley gave a presentation to more than 100 indies at the Booksellers Association’s Independent Booksellers Forum conference in Coventry on Monday (26th September) and discussed the Record Store Day initiative. Record companies provide independent stores with exclusive products, mostly vinyl albums and singles, created especially for the day. It is now in its third year, and 180 stores took part in 2011.

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Attracting and keeping online shoppers in Africa

How to draw in customers on the world wide web.

 BY VANESSA CLARK

There is a distinctly upbeat air from two of South Africa’s best-known online retailers, Exclusives.co.za and Kalahari.com. Unsurprisingly, both have their sights set on the opportunities that mobile brings, but in the meantime are finding South Africans keen online shoppers.

Exclusives.co.za’s General Manager, Ben Williams, maintains it’s getting down to basics that is key to attracting and retaining online shoppers in South Africa. Success is down to “boring, basic stuff” he says.

Key to Williams’ strategy is “good marketing of good pricing”. Online prices must beat the prices in physical stores and then be communicated effectively. For instance, says Williams, although Exclusives.co.za is known to be good for books, he is working to build awareness of its pricing in other categories as well, such as e-books, music and games.

Secondly a commitment to delivery is vital, says Williams. And this is not delivery in the marketing weasel-word sense, this refers to the actual delivery of a physical item to a customers within the time promised. And once an expectation has been set, it can be a huge challenge to meet this: for instance a book might need to be delivered from the west coast of America, rather than the east, adding a week to the delivery time.

“Logistics are crucial,” says Williams. “Businesses that have watertight supply chains are winning.”

Finally, security is the third key factor in attracting and retaining online shoppers, says Williams. Here, as well as the usual digital trust certifications, such as Thawte, Exclusives.co.za benefits from the affiliation with a known and established offline store, Exclusive Books. “This provides an element of built-in trust,” says Williams.

As an aside, Williams describes the relationship between Exclusives.co.za and the bricks and mortar stores as having a “natural tension”. While the offline side of the business is wary of the online pricing, it recognises that online retail is key to the overall group strategy. Williams is excited by the role e-books plays as an intersection between the online and offline stores: while the e-books might be bought online, customers are likely to also shop for e-book readers in physical stores, and be shown how to use them in-store.

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Dueling Russia: Myth, Veracity, and Literature

Ilya Repin, Duel Between Onegin and Lenski, from Alexander Pushkin‘s Eugene Onegin, 1899

By Nick Moran


In her article “The Emergence of the Duel in Russia,” which appeared in a 1995 edition of Russian Review, Irina Reyfman wrote, “the first third of the nineteenth century stands out in Russian cultural memory as a period that saw the largest number of duels in the history of dueling Russia.” Its sudden popularity, she argued, grew from mounting tension between the nobility and the reactionary Tsar Nicholas I. Fed up with their shrinking autonomy, the nobles utilized the threat of the duel to preserve the inviolability of their rights.

As it happened, the first third of the nineteenth century was also the height of the Golden Age of Russian Poetry, and so unsurprisingly the literature of the time often crossed paths with the act of dueling. Yet while the duel, according to Reyfman, enjoyed its peak popularity during Russia’s Golden Age, it would not fully fall out of fashion—or literary relevance—until Russia’s Silver Age a hundred years later.


Two events in particular punctuate the beginning of the era. Another marks its end.

In 1837, Alexander Pushkin and Georges d’Anthès dueled on the banks of St. Petersburg’s Chernaya River. Offended by allegations that his brother-in-law, d’Anthès, was having an affair with his wife, Pushkin challenged the French officer to mortal combat. It would be Pushkin’s twenty-ninth duel, and it would also end his life. Four years afterward, Mikhail Lermontov would die in the same way: killed by Nikolai Martynov over a crass joke. (That Pushkin and Lermontov died so close together underscores what Reyfman said about the duel’s sudden popularity.)

Nearly a century later, in 1909, two more Russian poets dueled on the Chernaya Rechka: Nikolay Gumilyov and Maximilian Voloshin. The offense seems cliché at first: Gumilyov had—like many of his peers—become enamored with the female poet Cherubina de Gabriak, and Voloshin stood in his way. It was soon discovered, however, that de Gabriak did not actually exist in corpus, and was instead a pseudonym manufactured by Voloshin and a then-unknown schoolteacher named Elisaveta Dmitrievna. The two had concocted the exotic alias in order to get two dozen poems published. Gumilyov, publisher of some of these poems, wound up penning amorous letters to de Gabriak, and he began receiving equally amorous responses. The offense could not go unpunished. This time, both duelists survived unscathed.

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Confessions of a Literary Barbarian

Mark Twain

A defense of The Cambridge History of the American Novel.

By Benjamin Reiss

I recently learned that I had “killed American lit.”

In a lengthy diatribe in the Wall Street Journal against the Cambridge History of the American Novel (which I edited with Leonard Cassuto and Clare Eby), Joseph Epstein identifies the usual academic murder weapons: multiculturalism, literary theory, and hatred of America. English professors have abandoned the central task of criticism—defending great works from pop-cultural rubbish—and have given ourselves over exclusively to such buzzkilling concepts as race, class, gender, and disability. Epstein rails against our focus on contexts, especially those that might trouble happy narratives of national progress. He calls for a return to the glory days of “40 or 50 years ago,” when the “centurions of high culture” guarded the fortress of high art against “the barbarians who now run the joint.” If only we could just teach students to love the canon again, we could return to the golden age.

While I find Epstein’s characterization of our 71-chapter volume—which covers everything from the publishing business to Henry James, dime novels to modernist aesthetics—closed-minded and inaccurate, his rant does raise a good question. What is literary history, and how should it be brought to bear on the genre of the novel? The Cambridge History of the American Novel is really a biography of the novel as it intersects with American history. Part of the explanation for the changing shape of the American novel involves individual genius (i.e., great writers), but it also involves the stuff of national history: wars, slavery, emancipation, democracy, territorial expansion, civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, and capitalism.

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Little Women, Coleridge, Utopia


Louisa May Alcott

On this day in 1868 Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published. It was an immediate best seller, bringing the thirty-five-year-old Alcott a popularity she did not expect: “I plod away, though I don’t really enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

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September 29, 2011

Books that deserve to be banned

Not that we take Banned Books Week lightly. But some classics are painful enough to ruin reading forever.

By Laura Miller

Book banning is a serious matter, and the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week is an important consciousness-raising exercise. True, a lot of the titles on the ALA’s list of targeted books have been “challenged” rather than actually banned, and — thanks to the ALA’s ability to mobilize the press and public opinion — most of those challenges end up being disregarded or overturned. Still, every year dozens of citizens, usually parents, try to get books removed from school curricula and libraries.

And so we ask: Where were these censors when we really needed them — that is, when our 10th-grade teachers assigned “Beowulf” or “The Pearl”? As deplorable as real-life book banning may be, there’s some required reading that those of us at Salon would love to see retired from the nation’s syllabuses simply because we were tortured by it as kids.

“What is the educative value of making nerdy kids (or anyone, I suppose) read ‘Lord of the Flies’?” asks film critic Andrew O’Hehir. “Is it pure sadism? To rub their faces in the gravity of their predicament, and the likely fact that they will sooner or later be sacrificed to a nonexistent God by their classmates? Now, I recognize the book’s literary value, no question, and the point that it’s an allegory about human society and not strictly about children or for children. But that’s not how you read it when you’re 11, for the love of sweet suffering Jesus. Really hated that experience.”

For my part, while I was a voracious independent reader of children’s fiction from the second grade on, “Lord of the Flies” — and another novel I was ordered to read at age 10, “Animal Farm” — convinced me that “grown-up” books were unrelentingly bleak and politically didactic; this kept me from venturing beyond the kids’ section of the library for a few years.

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Chick-lit may be staggering on its heels, but it will survive

What would Bridget Jones say about the supposed demise of chick-lit?

Sophie Hannah, Dawn French, Sophie Kinsella, Kate Atkinson, Philippa Gregory and Kathy Reichs prove that female authors are as influential as ever.

By Jojo Moyes

So chick-lit is dead, ground to dust under its own glittery, pink stiletto heel. Over the past week, the falling sales of various female authors – Marian Keyes, Veronica Henry, Jodi Picoult – have been trotted out to declare that the day of the pink-covered paperback is finally over.

Oh, arse, as Bridget Jones might say. Let’s ignore the fact that chick-lit has apparently repaired to its deathbed every year for the past decade. And that fiction in general is down 10 per cent. According to the latest reports, only sales of science fiction and fantasy are up, propelled by George R R Martin’s acclaimed A Game of Thrones.

And let’s put aside the fact that most chick-lit authors still sell more than the entire Booker shortlist put together. For those shifting 100,000 units a week, a dip of 20 per cent in sales is painful, yes. But it’s not as painful as shifting 1,500 copies during an entire shelf life, as do many “literary” offerings.

But the sales picture is more complex than the headline figures suggest. David Shelley, publisher of Little, Brown, recently told The Bookseller that digital books now account for a “disproportionate number” of sales of women’s fiction, but are not yet recorded. Sales of Jenny Colgan’s novel, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café, are up almost 40 per cent, thanks to e-books.

“Digital downloads have been really successful with young women’s fiction,” says Colgan. “A lot of chick-lit readers are tech-savvy, and they read a lot,” she says.

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Are writers harming themselves by sticking with traditional publishers?

By Chris Meadows

Found via a post on the E-Book Mailing List today, a fantastic blog post by writer Sarah A. Hoyt, that links to an equally fantastic blog post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (which is of related but not identical subject matter to the blog post by Rusch we covered back in March).

Rusch’s post, made back in May, is intended to be an eye-opener, a clarion call to the publisher-bound writers that Michael Stackpole analogizes to Roman “house slaves”. Traditional book publishing, Rusch warns, is traveling down the same road that rock music has. She points to examples from music-industry insiders demonstrating that new bands can get $250,000 advances yet still end up owing their record label money after their first album, then sits down to demonstrate how traditional publishing is becoming like that.

Publishers, Rusch points out, are starting to add more grasping clauses into their contracts—and naive writers are signing because they don’t know any better. Middlemen like publishers are no longer necessary, Rusch explains.

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Conan Doyle boom in literature and cinema

Arthur Conan Doyle. © Photo: ru.wikipedia.org

By Karina Ivashko

A literary sensation occurred in the UK on the 26th of September: Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Narrative of John Smith came out 130 years after it was written.

How did it happen that the debut novel of the English classic was lost for so many years? This is a mystery even for experts of the British Library which has the writer’s largest archive. It is really a strange story. Conan Doyle is believed to have written The Narrative of John Smith at the age of 23 and sent it to a publisher hoping for a publication. The manuscript was lost and the author had to re-write it from memory. However, he did not make any more attempts to publish it. Meanwhile, experts believe that this first large work of the writer is of great cultural significance. “In the main character John Smith one can easily trace the author’s features and the literary methods are similar to those which Conan Doyle used in his more mature years,” Alexandra Yeretian from the Slovo Russian publishing house says in her interview for The Voice of Russia. Slovo will publish the lost novel for Russian readers already in December:

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Rockin’ reads

Neil Young attends 'Neil Young Life' Premiere at Princess of Wales during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2011 in Toronto, Canada. Photograph by: Peter Bregg/Getty Images

By Ben Kaplan

News that Neil Young would be penning his autobiography took the Canadian book world by storm Tuesday. Hot on the heels of the bestselling Life by Keith Richards, Young’s autobiography might be the only Canadian rock memoir to present any kind of sales rival to the skull ring-wearing Rolling Stone.

“A memoir coming from Neil Young – if, in fact, he’s written it, he’s honest, he can write, he has a good editor and lots of photos – will sell tons,” says Jack David, publisher of ECW Press, a 37-year-old Canadian publishing house that specializes in pop-culture books, including a memoir from Rush drummer Neil Peart. “We turn down two celebrity memoirs for each one that we publish because either they can’t write, their story isn’t interesting or else they aren’t willing to be honest. Keith’s book did all those things, and we have to expect the same from Neil.”

“Uncle Neil” has already been featured on the pages of a book, most famously in James McDonough’s 2002 biography Shakey, which included in-depth interviews with Young, his family and friends. Although Young, the Toronto-born son of legendary sports writer Scott Young, agreed to McDonough’s biography, the men had a falling out that ended in court and the tome was shelved for three years.

Young’s new book, tentatively titled Waging Heavy Peace and expected to be published in 2012 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin, is touted as being written solely by the iconoclastic rock star. (Signing Young to a publishing deal was hailed as a coup by Blue Rider president David Rosenthal, who recently secured a similar publishing deal with Dylan.)

“I started and kept going,” Young said in a news release. “I felt like writing books fit me like a glove.”

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